The basement of the Student Activities Building is home to one of the University’s best-kept secrets – or at least it seems that way on a campus where it appears the majority of students aren’t even aware it exists. However, those in the know are privy to one of the best radio stations in the country, WCBN-FM 88.3 Ann Arbor, where freeform reigns supreme and there are no limitations to a DJ’s creativity.

Jess Cox
Cargo sits in front of walls of music at his disposal.
(EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

Many college radio stations mandate that their DJs play non-commercial “new music,” usually the sort of indie rock Spin magazine pedals to depressed teenage girls and douche-y aspiring hipsters. At WCBN, freeform is the preferred format, setting 88.3 apart from the increasingly homogenized radio taking over the rest of the dial.

Freeform simply means the DJ has complete and total freedom in choosing music. Giving the DJ full control of what he or she plays gives WCBN the sort of personality that led listeners in such exotic locales as Malaysia, Vietnam, Belgium and Portugal to tune in over the web at www.wcbn.org, where the station is streamed 24/7.

So what better place for a record nerd to showcase his vinyl obsession?

It’s surprisingly easy to get a show on WCBN; all you need to do is attend a Sunday meeting (more info on the website) and make a demo tape – virtually no one is turned away. One of the greatest strengths of WCBN is the diversity of the staff, where the DJs range from fresh-faced students to community members whose commitment to the station give WCBN the local flavor it’s famous for.

First-semester DJs are required to do the 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. shifts, and last semester I helmed that graveyard shift on Saturday nights. I used my show mainly to play music from my own collection, giving me time to listen to recent purchases, mostly jazz, funk, soul and The Beatles. I’m pleased to say that despite the ungodly hour, I never went to a single show unaccompanied. Without the contributions of O.G.’s like Sassy J and Lady Groove, the presence of Lisa Hiatt, Laura Leonard and Jake Merkin or in-studio performances from brilliant musicians Theo Katzmann, Yosef “The Truth” Dosik, Tyler Duncan, Ross Huff and Mike Nickens, each show was spontaneous and unique.

Spinning vinyl almost exclusively, I’d start every show with Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts,” a tradition that has carried over to my current Wednesday morning, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift. Tuning in on any given Saturday night, you were almost guaranteed to hear Otis Redding, The Sylvers and George Harrison, with some Archie Shepp, Michael Jackson and Horace Tapscott mixed in. This semester I’ve focused on exploring WCBN’s vast archives, attempting to broaden my horizons while providing the work-crowd music to wake up to.

Most of my favorite WCBN memories involve my guests. My favorite show I’ve done so far consisted of my Mother telling embarrassing stories about me during every set-break (vain, I know). Another favorite was the night New York MC Iron Solomon, dubbed by The Village Voice as the best battle rapper in the Big Apple, spat devastating freestyles until the sun came up. I also can’t even begin to recount all of the weird/disturbing/awesome phone calls I’ve gotten. It takes a certain kind of person to listen to the radio from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. on the weekend, and I talked to my fair share of cab drivers, drunkards and potheads who called in to complain, make requests and compliment my selections. Now that I’ve got a more reasonable time slot, most of my calls are from commuters curious about what’s spinning.

For a school without a journalism major, WCBN is an excellent resource for students interested in broadcast journalism. Mostly though, it’s a haven for music lovers hoping to turn on listeners to the same music that moves them. Whether it’s Ayler mashed up over an Oscar the Grouch sing-a-long, or a live improvisation complete with trumpet and tuba accompanying a speech from the Pope, WCBN is the place for aspiring DJs to express their love of music creatively.

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